How will big data change the way research is conducted? What kind of impact will an increasing focus on interdisciplinary and transdicisplinary science have on funding and management models? How is the need to quantify variability changing Earth and space sciences? These questions are indicative of just a few of the trends highlighted in a new report by AGU.

The report, Scientific Trends in the Earth and Space Sciences, identifies a series of crosscutting trends that will influence the Earth and space sciences in the coming years, as well as associated challenges and opportunities. Authored by AGU’s 2014 Scientific Trends Task Force, it summarizes the results of a global survey that was undertaken with the goal of guiding AGU’s formulation of policy, generation of new program and business ideas, and ability to advise on science-related issues. The report was also intended to serve as a resource for the public.

The 12 themes identified are as follows:

  • Utilizing and managing big data sets
  • Advances in modeling
  • Characterizing, reducing, and communicating uncertainty
  • Quantifying variability
  • The increase in inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinarity
  • Climate change
  • The growing demand for science for society
  • The increase in globalization of science
  • New and innovative tools and methodologies
  • New funding sources and mechanisms
  • Increased interest in planetary and space sciences
  • Increased interest in life in extreme environments

The challenges and opportunities identified, which were based on the survey data and additional sources, include the following:

  • Declining funding
  • Preserving Earth resources; risk reduction
  • Increased politicization of science
  • Communicating science to nonscientists
  • Growth of inter- multi- trans-disciplinary science

As chair of the task force, I found that both the trends and the challenges and opportunities illustrate commonalities across a large number of scientific disciplines, which was an unanticipated result. Also, in analyzing the survey data, my fellow task force members noted that many of the identified trends will require major changes in the way AGU and its members go about their work.

For example, AGU will need to address the funding, recognition, and career development challenges associated with increasing interdisciplinary research and education and application of Earth sciences. Also, because of the dramatic change in the international demographics of its community, AGU will need to focus more globally to educate its membership about new methods and technologies.

The increased connection anticipated between Earth and space science and society means that AGU will need to help scientists be better communicators. This help will have to include providing resources such as educational programs and platforms, credentialing programs, etc., and focused outreach to students will be necessary. The Union will also need to find ways to help prepare students and early-career scientists for the impact of these trends, including developing new geoscience-related undergraduate curriculum ideas and refocusing graduate programs.

The task force, which was composed of 22 members serving on AGU section and focus group executive committees, collected information through an electronic survey distributed to more than 50,000 AGU scientists as well as representatives from other scientific societies, funding agencies, and chairs of relevant disciplinary surveys. The survey yielded nearly 1200 responses, including broad international and career stage participation—with individuals from the United States and Europe and mid- to late-career scientists representing the largest groups of survey respondents.

Survey respondents were asked a series of open-ended questions, and the unstructured data were later analyzed through a “coding” process that classified responses into broad themes and categories in addition to the respondents’ self-identified scientific interest and discipline. Additional data and information sources were also considered and used by the task force to analyze the trends survey results and formulate the report; they are included in the report’s appendices.

Results of the survey and the report are now being considered by the AGU Council and Board and various committees. The task force has recommended that AGU update this scientific trends profile every 3 to 4 years as a service to the organization, its membership, and the broader Earth and space science community.

The report and additional information about the project are available online at

—Christy Till, 2014 AGU Scientific Trends Task Force Chair; Arizona State University, Phoenix; email:

Citation: Till, C. (2014), Big data and quantifying variability top scientific trends list, Eos Trans. AGU, 95(50), 479, doi:10.1002/2014EO500008.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.